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Why shouldn’t there be a Catholic ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England?

After all, the Catholic Church in Malta thrived under the temporal authority of protestant governors

By on Monday, 31 October 2011

Arthur Edwards/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Arthur Edwards/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Has David Cameron really thought through his proposals for the reform of the various laws governing the Royal succession? It is curious how few of the secular newspapers seem have spotted the flaw in his proposal that the monarch or heir to the throne should be allowed to marry a Catholic, but that the monarch or heir to the throne may not himself or herself actually BE a Catholic: the obvious glitch in this scheme is that under canon law, the children would be have to be brought up as Catholics, so that presumably they would all automatically be removed from the line of succession, and some other heir to the throne would then have to be found in a collateral branch of the family: hardly an improvement on the present unjust and illogical situation.

The reason why the 1701 Act of Settlement is to be amended in this way rather than repealed, it seems, is that the C of E quietly explained the consequences, and objected to what was proposed. According to the Telegraph,

… the plan to abolish the Act of Settlement was quietly shelved after the Church [of England] raised significant objections centring on the British sovereign’s dual role as Supreme Governor.

Church leaders expressed concern that if a future heir to the throne married a Roman Catholic, their children would be required by canon law to be brought up in that faith.

This would result in the constitutionally problematic situation whereby the Supreme Governor of the Church of England was a Roman Catholic, and so ultimately answerable to a separate sovereign leader, the Pope, and the Vatican.

Well, there are two ways round this: firstly, that the Church of England should actually be disestablished. Why not? After all, if male primogeniture is “out of date” (dread words), the establishment by law of the Church of England certainly is. Many Catholics are opposed to the disestablishment of the C of E on the grounds that at least it constitutes a toehold for some kind of Christianity in our constitutional arrangements (prayers in the H of C etc); probably I am, too, but not for any good reason, mainly that I think that nearly all constitutional change turns out to be disastrous: not that there’s much of a constitution left, after Blair’s sustained assaults on it.

But the question of why the Church of England should not have a Roman Catholic “Supreme governor” (not a spiritual office but a temporal one) is not answered by saying that he or she would have to accept allegiance to “a separate sovereign leader”, the Pope. That reason is a nonsense. The pope’s status as a head of state is a courtesy which most nations are prepared to accord him. The fact is, however, that the United Nations does not, and the Vatican City State is not a full member of it. So there is no difficulty there: a Catholic British monarch would accept only the pope’s spiritual authority over himself: the Catholic King of Spain accepts it, but does not accept the temporal authority of the Vatican over the country of which he alone is head of state.

So there’s no difficulty there. But what about the illogicality of the Church of England accepting the temporal authority of a non-Anglican head of state. Well, why not? There’s nothing in law to prevent Prince Charles becoming a Muslim or a Buddhist and then becoming supreme governor of the church of England: so why not a Catholic?—at least he’d still be a Christian. And the fact is, there’s a rather interesting precedent: the same situation, but in reverse—a Catholic Church, established by law, under the British monarch as its supreme temporal governor and protector. British governors of Malta, on the king’s behalf, took over many of the functions of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the British, at the invitation of the Maltese (this was not a British conquest) assumed the secular rule of the tiny island state in 1800. In 1802, the Maltese issued a “Declaration of Rights”, article 6 of which reads as follows:

That His Majesty the King is the protector of our holy religion, and is bound to uphold and protect it as heretofore; and without any diminution of what has been practiced since these Islands have acknowledged His Majesty as their sovereign to this day; and that His Majesty’s representatives have a right to claim such church honours as have always been shown to the regents of these Islands.

The “regents” referred to here were the Knights of Malta; and the British governor now accordingly assumed the rights and responsibilities of the Grand Master, including the physical ownership of that splendid building which became St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, where a throne on the right of the sanctuary was established for the governor, with the British Royal Arms above it, opposite the bishop’s throne on the left. For a time, during the 19th century, the governor even exercised (with the Pope’s consent) the Grand Master’s rights of presentation to the Bishopric of Malta, and as one result all future bishops (then archbishops) of Malta were for the first time always Maltese citizens. Up until the very end of British rule, every year, on the Feast of Candlemas, every Parish Priest attended a ceremony in Valletta, where each one presented to the governor a lighted candle signifying his acceptance of the governor’s temporal power and of his protection of the Maltese Church. This protection was nearly always scrupulously exercised, and the Church’s privileges were upheld by successive governors: the Anglicans, for instance, were not allowed any grants by the British government to build their own church and it was only in 1844 that the first Protestant church, after the personal intervention of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, was opened in Malta: Adelaide herself personally funded the construction of St. Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta, still one of the very few non-Catholic Churches in Malta.

If not exactly the same in all respects as the role of “supreme governor” of the Church of England, the British governor’s role as protector of the Maltese Catholic Church was surely similar enough to establish a precedent demonstrating very clearly that the temporal head of a Church does not have to be a religious adherent of it. My parents lived in Malta for the last 20 years of their lives, so I got to know it well. The British relationship with the devotedly Catholic Maltese was nearly always a happy one; and undoubtedly one of the reasons was our respectful protection of the Maltese Church. There is no reason to suppose that a British Catholic monarch would not do as well in this respect as British governors of Malta—as supreme governor of a Church of which he would not be a member. Would the C of E really prefer a Muslim?

  • Anonymous

    Perfectly reasonable argument – maybe you should have a word with +Vin about it?

    He seems to think that he needs to ‘equivocate’ about canon law directives on the raising of children in order to not rock any boat.

  • Anonymous

    “the obvious glitch in this scheme is that under canon law, the children would be have to be brought up as Catholics”

    Dispensation can be given: cf Princess Michael of Kent.

  • Anonymous

    “The fact is, however, that the United Nations does not, and the Vatican City State is not a full member of it.”

    Not wholly true: the reason the Vatican has observer status only is mainly that there are things the UN demands which the Vatican could not sign up to.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, though, that there’s no reason why a Catholic could not be monarch and put the rubberstamping of the appointment of Anglican “bishops” into other hands. I mean, a Catholic can theoretically be PM, and they do the ACTUAL appointing of these people. Didn’t Gordon Brown place the responsibility elsewhere for his tenure as he wasn’t an Anglican? I vaguely remember it being discussed.

  • W Oddie

    Actually, the appointment of Anglican-bishops is now effectively entirely in the hands of the  C of E. They produce 3 names. making it clear which one they want: this is nearly always accepted. One famous time it wasn’t was when Margaret Thatcher appointed Graham Leonard, of whom she approved, rather than someone I can’t now remember. 

  • Inquisator

    The pre-nuptial enquiry paperwork infers in respect of mixed marriages, that the couple, ‘within the unity of the marriage’ ought to make their own minds as long as the Catholic party ensures that there is no danger to the practice of their Faith nor any danger presented whereby they may fall away from it.  I have always felt sorry for good practicing Anglicans who find themselves marrying a totally non practicing Catholic yet having to sit back and have the Church tell them that it knows best for his/her children’s faith journey. About time we started to preach the Gospel and stopped preaching the Church.  Last Sunday’s Gospel is very apposite.

  • Oconnordamien

    Or indeed….

    Why shouldn’t there be an atheist “Supreme Governor” of the C of E.

    The same common sense points apply but without any worries about canon law.

  • Eamonn Drohan

    The Pope is head of state of the Holy See – his title as head of state is not a mere courtesy accorded to him by some nations.  The argument that the Holy See is not a full member of the United Nations does not wash, Switzerland only became a full member in 2002 – so that would mean that Switzerland was not a ‘real’ country until that date?

  • Poppy Tupper

    Canon law is irrelevant. If they married in an Anglican church, which they would, there would be no obligation to bring offspring up in the Catholic faith. Any religious denomination, sect or cult can make demands that the offspring of its members be claimed for its membership, but those demands are not supported by any law. In the end the faith, sect or cult which stamps and screams the most wins in mixed marriages. Thus Catholics win over Anglicans, Orthodox Jews win over Catholics and Muslims win over everyone else.

  • Oconnordamien

    I really don’t get this system, and I’m sure the persons who do get it are paid large amounts in salaries for their opinions. History has shown that hereditary systems cause trouble.

    Over here, we now have a new head of state, “Sure he’s a lovely fella”, ex-politician but unblemished after 40 years. An academic and poet, a catholic who supports same gender marriage, admits that we need to look at laws about termination and women’s health and doesn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. Not what you’d expect but that’s what the country wanted…. But he still only got my second vote!

    There is a huge difference, you vote for what a country should be. Monarchy stays to quiet to reflect what the country used to be.


  • Howard Richards

    Your point appears to be that a monarch could marry a Catholic as long as the Catholic stopped being Catholic.  Well, yes.

  • Poppy Tupper

    Now that is just being silly. Up here in Lancashire there are lots of cases where a Muslim man takes a Catholic wife. I bet you can guess what rite of marriage they went through, and what religion their children are brought up in. The Catholic wife is not driven out of her church for it or denied the sacraments. She is still a Catholic. Similarly if a Catholic man takes a Jewish wife, you can be quite sure that in most cases the Synagogue will win when it comes to raising the children. The father of the children is not excommunicated for failing to bring up his children as Catholics. The trouble is that when it comes to a fight, Anglicans (except, it has to be said, for the conservative evangelical variety) are a pushover when it comes to marriage, which has allowed the RC church to become a bully – especially in Ireland where there was once a tradition that boys took their dad’s religion and girls their mum’s. However now that the Irish RC church has so well and truly pooped all over its own doorstep, people (and clergy) are returning in large numbers to the old religion. The Irish return has completely nullified the effect of Mr Oddie’s trumpeted Ordinariate.

  • Poppy Tupper

    The ‘three name’ thing is a piece of mythology. There are only two names in any case, and they are placed in alphabetical order with no implication of preference, so Hapgood came first, Leonard second. 

  • Uhogb

    England should come back to the true Catholic religion under Pope which is successor of St Peter.
    You can’t follow church that was established by person who was murderer and committed adultery.

  • Anonymous

    @Poppy “Canon law is irrelevant. If they married in an Anglican church, which they would, there would be no obligation to bring offspring up in the Catholic faith. ”

    Where they marry is irrelevant.

    I note that the Archbishop of Westminster stressed in a recent radio interview that Catholics have a duty to “do their best” to bring up their children as Catholics (or was it something even more vague, like “bringing their faith into their marriage”? – can’t quite remember). That is not as strong as saying they have an obligation to bring up their children as Catholics.

  • Kilsally

    The Roman Catholic Church actually codifies it thus: Matrimonia Mixta, Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages, dated October 1st 1970:[Before marriage to a non-Catholic person] the Catholic party shall declare that he is ready to remove dangers of falling from the faith. He is also gravely bound to make a sincere promise to do all in his power to have all the children baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church.

  • Kilsally

    Sorry but you are wrong according to canon law:
    “The faithful should therefore be reminded that the Catholic party to a marriage has the duty of preserving his or her own faith. Nor is it ever permitted to expose oneself to a proximate danger of losing it.         Furthermore, the Catholic partner in a mixed marriage is obliged, not only to remain steadfast in the faith, but also, as far as possible, to see to it that the children be baptized and brought up in that same faith and receive all those aids to eternal salvation which the Catholic Church provides for her sons and daughters.”Canon 2319, § 1:
    “Catholics are under an excommunication latae sententiae reserved to the Ordinary:

    (1) who contract marriage before a non-Catholic minister contrary to canon 1063, § 1, 1:

    (2) who contract marriage with an explicit or implicit agreement that
    all children or any child be educated outside the Catholic Church;

    (3) who knowingly presume to present their children to non-Catholic ministers to be baptized;

    (4) who, being parents or taking their place, knowingly present their
    children to be educated or trained in a non-Catholic religion.

    … 13. The celebration of marriage before a Catholic priest or deacon and a non-Catholic minister, performing their respective rites together, is forbidden. Nor is it permitted to have another religious marriage ceremony before or after the Catholic ceremony, for the purpose of giving or renewing matrimonial consent.

  • Tyrone Beiron

    The correct and legal move should be to remove the British Monarch as the head and supreme governor of the Anglican church, and this appointment be given to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Monarch is then free to be of any belief according to conscience, and law. Afterall, the idea of synchronising the Monarchy with Anglicanism is just a 500-year old idea created by one tyranical Tudor monarch who had satiate needs and other insecurities, short of madness, and consequentially sent to sword some of the best minds of the realm. Rather than a “Restoration”, splitting this executive role of governorship with the monarchy and the CofE will be progressive in all respects. The Monarch can still swear to be the Defender of the Anglican Faith, although if HRH Charles PofW would have it, “defender of all faiths”. No need to restore the original award of that title to Henry VIII to its former Catholic meaning. We can stop short there, in pacem…